Micheline Aharonian Marcom lives in Northern California and teaches at Mills College. She is the author of four novels: Three Apples Fell from Heaven, The Daydreaming Boy, Draining the Sea, and The Mirror in the Well, and has been honored with a Lannan Foundation Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. The latter book, from Dalkey Archive Press, tells the story of an unnamed married woman’s affair and her subsequent sexual awakening. The narration toggles between second and third person—fracturing the story to great effect while multiplying its meanings. It is an achievement of prose, with burnished language leading the reader through its stew of senses and sex.
We talked about the book, its carnal language, eros, and the pros and cons of social media.
The Rumpus: You’ve said that the novel, The Mirror in the Well, came faster to you than the three others you’ve written. How does a book make its way into your consciousness and then onto the page? Is there a recurring idea or image that does not go away? Is it more of a magical process or are there different levels you go through to imbue the sentences and have it cohere?
Micheline Aharonian Marcom: What I can say is: every book I’ve written has been different from the others, and each one seems to have its own timeline, requirements, and formal challenges. As for Mirror, my fourth book, I wrote it on the heels of finishing my third novel, Draining the Sea—a book which took four years to write and which required a lot of research and travel: I made four trips to Guatemala while writing it. Upon finishing Draining I knew that I wanted to write something very different, a book not about war or historical events, and I was interested in writing a novel that didn’t require years of research or travel, a “domestic drama” I suppose, which came more directly from the realms of the imagination and was not sustained or supported by historical events per se. And I wanted to write something slender, and after two novels in the voice of a man—something very particularly in the voice of a female protagonist. The first scene in Mirror was the first that occurred to me: the scene between the two adulterous lovers in a motel. I suppose I figured the narrative out as I went, although I knew that this was a book about illicit love and the breaking of taboos. And I wanted to explore the terrain of female sexuality without censorship. I love Henry Miller’s Tropic books, they were an inspiration—his unbridled and honest gaze at all things, including from inside the lovers’ bedroom. He inspired me to do the same for a contemporary American woman. To write a book, in effect, from the female sex, where the word “cunt”, that fine and strong old Anglo-Saxon word from Old Norse, is, I hope, a little bit rehabilitated as a word…the taboo on its use upended.
Rumpus: Here is the opening of a chapter from later in the book:
She looks at the unaroused cunt. The cunt is covered in black hair. The outer lips are pale-leg white and then change into darkbrown; the inner lips are black-edged and then brown and pink. The clitoris peeks out red of its darkbrown overcoat, pulls back at a rough touch like a tentative animal. She opens her sex with her fingers, licks smells her fingers, she loves the smell of her cunt, the cunt slit is pink-red, her own secretions aid in her movements; she licks her fingers, she uses the spit-covered fingers to finger the cunt. She has never looked closely at her cunt before, it is forbidden and she knows and as a girl she closed her legs; as a girl she was ashamed of her fat mound, her pubic hair, the smell when a boy would remove her pants, the fluids of the body. The lover has taught her to love her cunt because the cunt is her center, the cunt is pleasure, the cunt knows and knew him, picked him from a cavalcade of other men.
This passage is unsparingly carnal. The voice of the novel is succinct and controlled, even though the second person voice bleeds into third person and then bleeds back. Direct, but not dispassionate. The repetition of “cunt” and the crayolaing of the genitalia for the reader all serve to press the situation of sexuality onto the reader in a florid way. What made you use this voice for this particular novel?
Marcom: I never feel like I am “using” a voice, rather I am listening to a voice and recording it as faithfully as it comes to me and as I can. I think that the female sex is much maligned, even in our supposedly sexually “open” society. It is the site of a woman’s pleasure, and the source of (most) children’s entry into the world, and an ancient symbol of power and fecundity, and we are directly or indirectly told in modern times that it’s dirty, shameful, ugly, odorous, and to be hidden away. As DH Lawrence said, the Protestant societies do dirt on sex, it is their dirty mind which aligns sex and a woman’s genitals with the debased and soiled. This is something terrible, I think, and to be contended with head-on in art.
Rumpus: In relationships such as the one you describe—where a person follows their hunger that feeds off the ecstatic—do you think the desire to have communion dies of its own accord, like a snake eating its tail? In reading the book I came away with the sense that the more the affair between the man and woman went on, the more it became apparent that sex has severe limitations. Someone may want to feel again and again the pleasure of being brought into bliss, but throughout that replication: life goes on, time passes, things change. Is eros ultimately doomed?
Marcom: This is a funny question: eros doomed! I doubt it…eros seems to drive most relationships, and not just those between lovers. Erotic energy is a big powerful force, it shakes things up, causes people to break the rules, makes people do crazy things! Reason doesn’t stand a chance in its face. But it also seems to metamorphose and move around…there is a particular erotic energy created, I think, for example, by the breaking of a taboo: as with these two adulterous lovers: they are fucking on the peripheries of their marriages and that’s hot for both of them. It is perhaps true that that sort of sexual energy wanes over time—as the original impetus loses its luster. And then, I suppose, it’s on to the next thing. But eros is eternal, like joy.
Rumpus: You do have an author website but you are not on Facebook. Why have you resisted this phenomenon seemingly embraced by so many? How does the internet in general either aid or harm your writing?
Marcom: I have a woefully outdated website which I’m currently in the works to update. The internet, like social media, seems to me to depend on how you use it, where you spend your time on it. I used to be quite anti-social media, but I can see now that it can be a good tool for artists, a way for us to speak to each other outside of standard economies and across languages and borders. I began to firmly change my mind when I saw how young Egyptians used Facebook, for example, to begin to coalesce their social justice movement in their country. And a good Iranian friend of mine showed me how also in Iran, till the government shut it down, much was communicated via social media. So I’m not against. I use the internet regularly to do research. It’s great but you have to use your discernment, especially if researching content. Right now I’m doing research on a book set in Mexico and I’m able to read articles from all over the world about the drug war in Mexico: this is invaluable and so much easier than ten years ago when I began researching novels. However, as we all know, in the ‘democracy’ of the internet, a lot of noise is created…and the quality and integrity of what’s disseminated varies hugely.
Rumpus: Your novels deal with some of the horrors of the world. Three Apples Fell from Heaven concerns the Armenian genocide. The Daydreaming Boy has a main character who is a genocide survivor and Draining the Sea looks at the Guatemalan civil war through the eyes of an American soldier complicit in civilian killings there. You’ve said that some people have urged you to write more commercially, with happier subjects. Can you speak about staying true to your vision at a time when some writers are writing more genre books to stay viable?
Marcom: Staying true to my vision, to the word as it comes to me, to my own aesthetic judgments, even when they disagree with the majority culture, is very important to me, and I think important for every artist. It’s what we have: our voice, our intuition, the truth as we understand and know it. When I write a book I write the best that I can and so much of that for me is following the book’s demands, the subject’s requirements—I love books, I always have. They have always been one of the places where I have felt very happy in the world. When I was younger, I loved to read genre fiction—I loved the magic-carpet ride of story! Now I need other things—I need the beautiful particular and strange language and form which brings a writer’s book to life in me and speaks to my intellect, and, dare I say it, to my soul.